When he left with his agent, Johnny Igoe, Johnny suggested they pop over to the St. Vincent Orphan Asylum just a few blocks away. Couldn't hurt, Johnny said, add to the positive press and maybe give Babe an edge in his latest round of bargaining with Harry Frazee. Babe felt weary, though--weary of bargaining, weary of cameras snapping in his face, weary of orphans. He loved kids and orphans in particu lar, but boy oh boy those kiddos this morning, all hobbled and broken and burned, really took something out of him. The ones with the missing fi ngers wouldn't grow them back and the ones with sores on their faces wouldn't look in a mirror someday and find the scars vanished and the ones in wheelchairs wouldn't wake up one morning and walk. And yet, at some point, they'd be sent out into the world to make their way, and it had overwhelmed Babe this morning, just sucked the juice out of him.
So he ditched Johnny by telling him he needed to go buy a gift for Helen because the little woman was angry with him again. This was partly true--Helen was in a snit, but he wasn't shopping for a gift, not in any store leastways. He walked toward the Castle Square Hotel instead. The raw November breeze spit drops of sharp, random rain, but he was warm in his long ermine coat, and he kept his head tilted down to keep the drops from his eyes and enjoyed the quiet and anonymity that greeted him on deserted streets. At the hotel, he passed through the lobby and found the bar almost as empty as the streets, and he took the first seat inside the door and shrugged off his coat and laid it over the stool beside him. The bartender stood down at the far end of the bar, talking to the other two men in the place, so Ruth lit a cigar and looked around at the dark walnut beams and inhaled the smell of leather and wondered how in the hell this country was going to get along with any dignity now that Prohibition looked a dead certainty. The No- Funs and the Shouldn't-Dos were winning the war, and even if they called themselves Progressives, Ruth couldn't see much progress in denying a man a drink or shuttering a place of warm wood and leather. Hell, you worked an eighty-hour week for shit pay it seemed the least to ask that the world give you a mug of suds and a shot of rye. Not that Ruth had worked an eighty-hour week in his life, but the principle still applied.
The bartender, a wide man with a thick mustache curled up so violently at the edges you could hang hats on it, came walking down the bar. "What can I get you?"
Still feeling a glow of kinship with the workingman, Ruth ordered two beers and a shot, make it a double, and the bartender placed the drafts before him and then poured a healthy glass of whiskey.
Ruth drank some beer. "I'm looking for a man named Dominick."
"That'd be me, sir."
Ruth said, "I understand you own a strong truck, do some hauling."
"That I do."
Down the other end, one of the men rapped the edge of a coin off the bar top.
"Just a second," the bartender said. "Them's some thirsty gents, sir."
He walked back down the bar and listened to the two men for a moment, nodding his large head, and then he went to the taps and after that to the bottles, and Ruth felt the two men watching him, so he watched them back.
The one on the left was strapping tall, dark-haired and dark- eyed, and so glamorous (it was the first word that popped into Babe's head) that Babe wondered if he'd seen him in the flickers or in the pages of the papers devoted to returning war heroes. Even from down the other end of a long bar, his simplest gestures--raising a glass to his lips, tapping an unlit cigarette on the wood--achieved a grace that Ruth associated with men of epic deeds.
The man beside him was much smaller and less distinct. He was milky and dour and the bangs of his mousy brown hair kept falling over his forehead; he brushed them back with an impatience Ruth judged feminine. He had small eyes and small hands and an air of perpetual grievance.
The glamorous one raised his glass. "A great fan of your athleticism, Mr. Ruth."
Ruth raised his glass and nodded his thanks. The mousy one didn't join in.
The strapping man clapped his friend on the back and said, "Drink up, Gene, drink up," and his voice was the baritone of a great stage actor hitting the back row.
Dominick placed fresh drinks in front of them and they returned to their conversation, and Dominick came back to Ruth and topped off his whiskey, then leaned back against the cash register. "So you need something hauled, do you, sir?"
Babe sipped his whiskey. "I do."
"And what would that be, Mr. Ruth?"
Babe took another sip. "A piano."
Dominick crossed his arms. "A piano. Well, that's not too--" "From the bottom of a lake."
Dominick didn't say anything for a minute. He pursed his lips. He stared past Ruth and seemed to listen for the echo of an unfamiliar sound.
"You've got a piano in a lake," he said.
Ruth nodded. "Actually it's more like a pond."
"Well, which is it, Mr. Ruth?"
"It's a pond," Babe said eventually.
Dominick nodded in a way that suggested past experience with such a problem and Babe felt a thump of hope in his chest. "How does a piano manage to get itself submerged in a pond?"
Ruth fingered his whiskey. "You see, there was this party. For kids. Orphans. My wife and I held it last winter. You see, we were having work done on our house, so we'd rented a cottage on a lake not too far away."
"On a pond you mean, sir."
"On a pond, yeah."
Dominick poured himself a small drink and threw it back.
"So, anyway," Babe said, "everyone was having a fine old time, and we'd bought all the little tykes skates and they were stumbling around the pond--it was frozen."
"I gathered, sir, yes."
"And um, I, well, I sure do like playing that piano. And Helen sure does as well."
"Helen's your wife, sir?"
"Noted," Dominick said. "Proceed, sir."
"So myself and some of the fellows decided to take the piano from the front room and push it down the slope onto the ice."
"A fine idea at the time, I'm sure, sir."
"And that's what we did."
Babe leaned back in his chair and relit his cigar. He puffed until he got it going and took a sip of his whiskey. Dominick placed another beer in front of him and Babe nodded his thanks. Neither of them said anything for a minute and they could hear the two men at the other end talking about alienated labor and capitalist oligarchies and it could have been in Egyptian for all that Babe understood it.